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Gordon D’Arcy: Welsh rugby faces a golden opportunity to secure its future

I’ve no doubt that three clubs going to the wall in the English Premiership weighed heavily on strategy for Welsh rugby

There is a renewed optimism in Welsh rugby surrounding the prospects of the national team, a young cohort of players have shown green shoots of progress in a game and a half in this season’s Six Nations championship.

Leaving aside the horror show of the first-half shambles against Scotland in their opening game, Warren Gatland’s side have made positive strides, producing a second half tour de force to lose the opening game by just a point (27-26), and then travelling to Twickenham, where they led England 14-5 at the interval before going down 16-14.

On the strength of this, there appears a golden opportunity for Welsh rugby to construct a rugby model that will future-proof the sport in the Principality even in these challenging financial times. It may be only five years since Wales won their 12th Grand Slam, but there has been a steady decline since, with the exception of a single campaign.

In January 2023 following a BBC Wales Investigates programme the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) was rocked by allegations of sexism, misogyny and a toxic culture that led to the resignation of chief executive Steve Phillips.


Last year the Welsh players threatened to strike over contractual disputes while the club franchises have been struggling on and off the pitch, but particularly financially. Wayne Pivac was given the unenviable task of replacing Warren Gatland and despite winning the 2021 Six Nations in his second season, results deteriorated and Gatland was reappointed to try to steady a listing ship.

Under huge financial pressure the WRU had two choices, either find money to keep the star players in the system, keeping their fingers crossed that success would follow, or back the existing talent within the system. Thankfully they opted for the latter, and I’ve no doubt that three clubs going to the wall in the English Premiership weighed heavily on that decision.

I have mentioned a Gatland phrase often in my column, ‘if you are good enough you are old enough’. He started his rebuild late last summer, opting not to bring some older players to the World Cup, a tournament in which they reached the knock-out stage before running out of gas.

Youthful Wales show signs of life ahead of Ireland game

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He doubled down on backing youth in appointing 21-year-old Dafydd Jenkins as captain for the Six Nations. Despite losing talent like centre Joe Hawkins to the Exeter Chiefs, which makes him unavailable for international duty, and wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso in a rugby tug-of-love to England, the clubs are getting on with the task at hand.

There is a smattering of excitement starting to build in the valleys, albeit there is a general acknowledgment that it will take a little time to travel the road to where they want to go. Young talent is emerging even in a difficult setting such as the Scarlets hammering by Munster. The next generation are getting valuable game time against quality opposition.

Cardiff were left to rue an early red card against Connacht, the Ospreys conjured a late victory over Ulster thanks to a drop goal from the 21-year-old Dan Edwards and Toby Booth’s side now sit above Munster, Ulster and Connacht in the URC table.

Wales are zero from two in the Six Nations so far, but the supporters have seen enough to get behind the national side. For now, it is the promise that sustains them, watching young players, not saddled with great expectations and as a result playing with a certain freedom. Naivety does have its consequences when it comes to the outcome.

At some point, the results must follow. Players need to absorb lessons and turn those experiences into something tangible. They need to validate effort and enterprise with a victory. On the balance of probabilities that is unlikely to be this weekend against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium.

The teams are at appreciably different stages in the Test match environment. That doesn’t mean that Wales can’t rattle their hosts, but I’d question whether they would truly believe that they can win in Dublin on Saturday afternoon.

Ireland’s attacking platform is in rude health, with the scrum and lineout firing on all cylinders. Jamison Gibson-Park and Jack Crowley have already demonstrated that armed with front-foot, quick possession from the set piece, how dangerous and accurate they can be in drawing all the performance strands of their team-mates together.

A layer of depth has been added that wasn’t immediately visible six months ago, highlighted for example in the maturation of Ryan Baird and Joe McCarthy, who have added significant value to the group. Crowley was challenged to step out of his predecessor’s shadow, which he has done superbly.

Six months is a lifetime in rugby, as I know only too well. I was deemed surplus to requirements at the 2003 World Cup, yet within a matter of months was handed a starting brief in the Six Nations that ensued.

The Irish system, designed to deliver players for Ireland, has proven itself time and time again over the past three decades. It is not perfect, far from it, but it works, the only argument being that limits are self-imposed by not finding a way for the club game to feed players into that system.

As my friend Liam Toland once told me, “Never waste a good crisis”, and maybe the WRU should bear that in mind when designing a pathway for Welsh rugby to build a sustainable future for the professional game.

What’s open for discussion in that context is whether there is a resolve within the organisation to change and evolve. The hard bit has been done; budgets have been trimmed to manageable levels; now it is about addressing the existential legacy issues about the way the game is structured.

The players are playing their part, taking the financial hit, continuing to show up and slowly capturing the imagination of their fans again. It is the decisions made far away from the pitch that will decide if it was worth the pain and the financial sacrifice.

Gordon D'Arcy

Gordon D'Arcy

Gordon D'Arcy, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a former Ireland international rugby player